The Unpopular Opinion: Goodfellas
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
**** SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
There are two genres that I resisted when I was younger: the gangster movie and the western. I did not think that either really fit with my cinematic taste. For a while, I was misguided in thinking that the only genre in which any originality could exist was horror since it posed no limits on itself. Seeing how lackluster modern horror had become, I ventured into genres I had less exposure to. Westerns grew on me and I have my fair share of favorites, but the gangster movie was still a difficult sell. I can say today that I am a fan of the genre, but I still approach each picture hesitantly.
During my freshman year of high school, I discovered Martin Scorsese. I had been taking a film class and was exploring directors that I had not seen many movies from, mostly because I was still a little young for the majority of R rated movies. Scorsese had just released CASINO the prior year and KUNDUN was coming next. I looked at his filmography and saw GOODFELLAS. I had heard people talk about it and quote it but I wrote it off as a gangster movie and therefore not worth my time. But, trying to widen my horizons, I gave it a shot.
I did not like GOODFELLAS. In fact, I greatly disliked the movie and to this day cannot figure out why everyone thinks it is so great. If I had to pick, I would take CASINO as Scorsese’s best mafia/gangster movie. CASINO has everything that GOODFELLAS lacks.
GOODFELLAS is widely considered one of the best American movies of all time. It falls on the AFI Top 100 list and was #2 in their Best Gangster Movies ranking (after THE GODFATHER). It was nominated for all of the top Academy Awards and ushered in the Martin Scorsese that we all recognize, stylistically. Everything from the narration to the framing of the shots has been imitated for the past two decades. BLOW, with Johnny Depp, follows the same structure as GOODFELLAS, complete with voice-over narration, and in a lot of ways succeeds where GOODFELLAS fails.
Let’s start with the biggest problem: Ray Liotta. Now, I love Ray Liotta. In fact, he was vastly overlooked for an Oscar nomination for BLOW. Here, we are following him as a young upstart as he climbs the ladder to gangster and beyond. Liotta is good in the movie, but he is a boring character. You could have put any number of actors in the same role and they still would have been overshadowed by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci who give a pair of their best performances. Maybe that is why CASINO worked better for me. In CASINO, De Niro and Pesci and the main attraction and nothing draws attention away from their characters. GOODFELLAS feels from beginning to end as if it is following the wrong character. Look back at the awards GOODFELLAS was nominated for and you will see all of the acclaim for De Niro, Pesci, and Lorraine Bracco but not a single one for Ray Liotta.
Some of you will say that Scorsese intentionally had Liotta as more of an everyman character to allow the viewer to relate more with this underworld story. But, Liotta is not every man. He is a rat and an unreliable person who essentially rats on his friends to save his own ass. Cinema is full of unsympathetic characters, but Henry Hill is just a waste. Yes, GOODFELLAS is based on a non-fiction book by Nick Pileggi, so there are constraints to changing how a real person acted for movie purposes, but BLOW and DONNIE BRASCO are two fine crime films that didn’t have very nice guys as the main character and yet you still were interested in the story and their eventual fates.
Scorsese has had a very wide range of films in the last twenty years. GOODFELLAS was the start of his renaissance as all his movies before it felt like a director still trying to find his true niche. TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, MEAN STREETS, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST; all of these movies have qualities to them that make them wholly distinct from Scorsese’s filmography beginning with GOODFELLAS. If you take any film released after it, they share a similar cinematic quality and a detachment from the main character. THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, THE DEPARTED, GANGS OF NEW YORK, HUGO, SHUTTER ISLAND, and KUNDUN are all vastly different from one another and yet they all feel like the visual result of what clicked with Scorsese during GOODFELLAS.
That, however, makes GOODFELLAS the first draft rather than a masterpiece. Scorsese nailed the soundtrack with the movie but everything else feels unfinished. The pacing from the first half of the movie is perfect and the second half feels rushed. I know many of you will comment and say the second half is rushed to match the drug-addled mindset of Henry Hill, but that is just an excuse. GOODFELLAS was Scorsese’s rebirth in Hollywood after a string of lackluster movies. Operating under studio constraints for the first time, Scorsese had to abide by requests to change the ending of the film. Once the acclaim rolled in, he became the director we know today. No one would dare take away final edit from him now, but during GOODFELLAS, he was not in full control. When it came time to make CASINO, he was able to make whatever movie he wanted. CASINO was a full 30 minutes longer than GOODFELLAS and yet the two films feel just as long. Where GOODFELLAS was forced to be rushed, CASINO has a sprawling tale that spans a large amount of time and yet nothing feels out of place or edited haphazardly.
If you think back to the best parts of GOODFELLAS, you likely are quoting Joe Pesci or Robert De Niro. If so, those scenes were probably ad-libbed. The “funny, like a clown” scene was fully the creation of Joe Pesci, based on an actual story from his life, which the director worked into the movie. Scorsese had the actors deliver their best original dialogue and then went back and incorporated the best bits into the script. That is likely why both actors are so commonly associated with this movie: they actually became their characters and lent life and originiality to what was apparently lacking in the original script. Outside of dialogue, you probably remember the amazing tracking shot through the Copacabana nightclub that became the signature shot from the movie. This was not planned but rather the result of circumstance since Scorsese could not get permission to enter through the front door. It is these moments of circumstance that can happen on a set and completely lend something fresh to a movie. The world of cinema is better off having these moments committed to celluloid, but moments on their own do not make a movie great.
GOODFELLAS deserves respect and has earned recognition, but in my opinion it is vastly overrated. I watched the film again in preparation to write this after not having seen it for a few years and my view remains unchanged. This is a prime example of a movie that should be recognized as a turning point in Scorsese’s career, but not the height of his achievement. I ask you to go back and watch GOODFELLAS and CASINO back to back and tell me which is better. You may be surprised by your own answer.